In The Studio With: Steffi
Globe-trotting DJ, label owner and purveyor of pristine underground club sounds, Steffi, unveils exquisite new album, World Of The Waking State. Hamish Mackintosh suffers some serious gear envy at her Berlin musicmaking HQ
Decamping from her native Holland to Berlin in 2007 proved the perfect accelerant for Steffi’s fledgling career. Signed up by legendary Berlin techno label Ostgut Ton, Steffi’s star rose rapidly with a residency at the Panorama Bar (in Berlin’s equally legendary Berghain nightclub who operate the Ostgut Ton imprint). Steffi’s debut album, Yours And Mine, showcased her burgeoning production skills and single, Yours (feat Virginia), filled countless dancefloors with its hypnotic brand of techno. There followed a slew of collaborations and remixes cementing a unique place within the global dance community for Steffi. 2012’s EP
Schraper further attested to Steffi’s love of techno along with her ever-increasing production talents and ear for a killer bassline.
Never one to rest on her laurels, Steffi has travelled the world as an in-demand DJ (with various mix CDs for Panorama Bar, Fabric and others), as well as launching and managing four of her own labels, Klakson (with Dexter), Dolly, Dolly Deluxe and Dolly Dubs. Presumably somewhere in amongst all this frenetic activity she even finds time to sleep occasionally!
World of the Waking State is Steffi’s third solo artist album and is her finest and most thoughtful offering to date. Revealing as it does a more contemplative and experimental side to Steffi, tracks such as The Meaning Of Memory, Kokkie and the sublime album closer, Cease To Exist, perfectly illustrate that you can deviate from 4/4 with an 808 and still make excellent dance music.
FM caught up with the multi-talented Steffi in her… how shall we put this… well, her incredible Berlin home studio, which houses her collection of some of the most desirable hardware synths you might ever want to make squelches and bleeps with. All of which have been put to excellent use on World Of The Waking State. So, without further ado, FM speak to Steffi about gear, beats, bleeps and workflow.
FM: World of the Waking State has a real sense of you growing as an artist. Is that fair to say?
Steffi: “Absolutely. For me, it feels like the best stuff I’ve done so far but I guess every time you deliver a new album that feels like an achievement! I’m this far now in my career that I just wanted to really do something without having a concept in mind and just go with the flow and explore the possibilities if I really don’t put any limitations on myself. That was quite a free fall into the deep for me, which is maybe why it feels like my biggest achievement so far. It came out so naturally and I was surprised by the outcome too.”
How can you manage to put limitations on yourself with such an incredible studio set-up?
“I think if you’re coming up with a plan like ‘I want to come up with something that fits my record bag as a DJ’ then that’s already a limitation, really. You’re just sketching within a concept… there are lines drawn like ‘let’s do an 135bpm electro-jam or 130bpm techno-jam”. Those lines are set but it doesn’t mean that you’re restricted in what you want to use in the studio but you already have an image of things you’re going to use. The bpm needs to be between this or that, is it gonna be straight-beat or an electro-beat, which requires a certain way of using the 808 and a way of programming that’s connected to that genre. With this album I didn’t give a fuck if the bass kick sits on the 3 or the 8, I just wanted to explore more deeply what was possible with what I’ve got in the studio. I guess because I didn’t really restrict tempos or make it a four-to-thefloor album it does widen the horizons.”
What was your main machine for beat-making with the new album?
“I actually went through the album the other day to prepare some stems for the live show and it reminded me that many of the kicks are just layered from two or three different instruments. For example, there might be something from a Yamaha DX200, like a deep, bassy sound and I’d use it as a kick layered with something from the Pearl Syncussion and maybe a couple of hits from a modulated 909 or something. It’s always a case of several instruments creating one kick drum. Most of it is accents, you know. Maybe a hit on the 1 and a hit on the 9 and everything else gets filled in with low-frequency synthesizers to create the same atmosphere as a kick drum but coming from different sources it makes it a little less predictable.”
With an array of classic 909/808 machines in your set-up, FM can’t pin the sound of your beats down to any specific machine…
“They’re not there, no. I used mainly drum synthesizers and drum brains from the ’70s and ’80s like the Syncussion and the Pearl Drum X. There’s the Ult Sound DS-4, which is an old Japanese drum synth and PAiA DIY one. So, I use those to create the length, pitches, velocity and tone, which is what makes the drums so organic, I guess.”
Have all these wonderful pieces of rare gear come about from hitting the music shops when you go to a new town?
“I think it’s more just a general interest in hardware and I should state that it really doesn’t matter to me whether it’s analogue or digital because I’m as much a hardware-freak for the digital stuff as I am for the analogue. It’s an interest that I’ve built up over the years. Listening to music, thinking where the sounds could have come from or just enjoying the aesthetics of the sounds. [ laughs] I just go infected with this gear-collecting virus!
“I started collecting in about 2000 and I’ve never really felt the urge to sell a lot so I’ve kept most of it. It’s a good investment and it’s nice to make a record with it.”
Do you envisage yourself constantly evolving and adding to your hardware set-up?
“I feel like there’s so much still to learn. With this album, I’m laying out a jam on the desk and hitting
It doesn’t matter whether it’s analogue or digital – I’m as much a hardware-freak for the digital stuff as I am for the analogue
a point where it’s pretty solid and has all the elements that a song might need; then I’m multitracking and what I do is I take a dry signal and take one or two effects signals and record that separately. That’s a thing I’m doing now but god knows I might even go deeper into things next time and maybe program all the parts on the sequencer and jam it live… I don’t know. The further I get into music production; the newer stuff develops and the more diverse ways of working I learn. So, it really does feel, after three albums, that I’m only just starting!”
It’s apparent from your studio layout that the mixing desk still plays an important role in your workflow…
“Yeah… absolutely. I guess I just like to get everything laid out before I record so I started with a small desk but over the years I got more gear. When I stepped away from the computer and found my love of hardware sequencing, for me that was a way to connect all my instruments. Working with the Cirklon (https://www.sequentix.com) I can have over 20 instruments running at the same time, which is really heavy but, at the same time, it allows you to create a song that you can lay out, apart from the arrangement, in the way you think it should be. The desk has a very important role in that because if I had to record each sound separately you kind of lose the moment. It’s all about pushing the fader, see what it does, put some effect on it then move on. I feel if you’re loading everything into a computer then, for me, it becomes static.”
Maybe now is a good time to ask you to talk us around the main gear in your studio rig…
“Of course… The mixing desk, an APB DynaSonics 32-channel, is the base where everything gets plugged in. I work with five rows of patchbays, which are very important to me to be able to connect things together and run it through effects and get the unexpected. Everything is plugged into the Cirklon hardware step sequencer and I have a CV/gate box that’s able to get all the instruments going without needing any conversion to MIDI. There’s a drum-trigger box also attached to the Cirklon to trigger all the old drum brains, which makes them all accessible through the step sequencer, which is amazing! The Pearl Drum X, Pearl Syncussion and the Ult Sound are basically where all the drums on the new album are coming from. I’ve got the whole Roland line but it’s not so present on this album.”
So, once everything’s running through the desk, is it then going into a computer?
“As soon as it’s on the desk I’ll run the mono drum sounds and the basslines through a UAD compressor/limiter/preamp and I have a nice lunchbox channel-strip from an old ’60s desk, which I’ll use parallel with a bit of LA-2A tubecompression. There’s the Ensoniq DP/4 that’s used for reverbs and crazy effects. Everything then goes into Logic.”